A Historic House in Philadelphia Serves as a Haven for Art and Music
Connie and Mike Cone restored and renovated their 19th-century town house in Philadelphia over a 12-year period. We spoke with them for the Winter 2021 issue of Preservation magazine; here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Connie: Before we purchased this house in 1997, we were living in Wilmington, Delaware, where Mike was working for DuPont. But we were coming into Philadelphia constantly. I had gotten my MFA in painting and printmaking at the University of Pennsylvania, and after that I had my studio in the city. For eight years I’d been taking the train into Philadelphia every day. Mike is a classical music nut, and we would go two, three, sometimes four nights a week to concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Mike: In 1995, we decided to renovate our house in Wilmington, which was a 4,000-square-foot Tudor-style house built in 1941. Two years later, after the renovation plans were done, we got an estimate for how much the project would cost, and it was a ridiculous amount of money. And we didn’t want to retire forever in Delaware. Connie said, “For this amount of money, we could buy something in Center City Philadelphia, and we should!” We made an appointment with a real estate agent and looked at 13 houses, including this one, in Rittenhouse Square and Society Hill.
Connie: Rittenhouse Square is beautiful, and it’s close to the Academy of Music [a performing arts building owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra]. I grew up in the New York City suburbs and went into the city all the time, and it reminded me of that.
Mike: The house is in a historic district. We are reasonably certain it was built in 1868. The Quaker mentality is very strong in Philadelphia. You go into these houses, and the exterior is perfectly plain, and then you walk in and the house just explodes. It’s the Quaker ideal of a beautiful soul and a plain exterior.
When you walk in the front door, you can see 118 feet up to the window on the second floor, and the whole house springs in front of you. I think Matthew Semple, who bought the house in 1895 and renovated it, was trying to show off a little bit. His architect, John T. Windrim, added the marble to the facade and designed the staircase you see today.
Connie: We really liked the bones of the house. It had space for a garden, which Mike wanted, and off-street parking, which I was intent on. It was a pretty quick decision on our part. We’d lived in six different places over the years and loved the idea of changing everything to live in this house—even our furniture, so it looked right in a house with high ceilings and paneling. But we knew it was going to involve a serious renovation.
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Mike: All the staircases and the paneling up to the third floor were there from 1895. The staircase from the third to fourth floor was also intact, and I think it’s from 1868. The two formal rooms on the second floor—the music room and the sitting room—and the third-floor guest room are pretty much as they are today. But the rest of the house had been destroyed between the 1920s and the 1990s.
Connie: I went to the local AIA [American Institute of Architects] office, where they had notebooks on a number of architects in town. We interviewed three different architects. Daniela Voith of Voith & Mactavish was the third, and we hit it off immediately. She had done a fair number of residential properties, and she wasn’t trying to take a historic house and strip it out and turn it into a Philip Johnson Glass House or something.
We needed a library, and a better kitchen with a professional stove and hood for entertaining. We knew we had to rip out the small, dark kitchen on the first floor, replace the garage, and design a brand-new garden. The dining room was oddly shaped and nothing lined up—the chandelier didn’t line up with the fireplace, or with the room itself.
Mike: We wanted to retain those parts of the historic fabric that were retainable and restore the rest of the house to be like them. And we wanted the bathrooms and the two kitchens to be as modern as possible. We thought if they were very contemporary-looking, then you wouldn’t notice any inconsistencies in the restoration and think, “Well, this is not really how it would have been in 1895.”
Connie: We did the renovation in three phases over about a dozen years, which gave us time to review the plans over and over again. We wanted to make sure that when we went to hire a contractor, the plans were rock solid. It was really expensive, so we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. We looked for and bought historical fireplace mantelpieces, antique coal grates, and antique hardware for the doors. All of that takes time.
Mike: Every single molding in the house was designed, and we positioned all the plumbing pipes, electrical lines, and HVAC ducts. Some things were measured to a 64th of an inch in the first phase of renovation. There were 40 to 50 pages of blueprints for the last phase, and a 350-page book of specs—what kind of copper to use for the pipes, exactly what kind of chain to use for the double-hung windows. It was all done in advance to avoid any misunderstandings.
Connie: When we moved back into the house after the last phase of renovation, it was a shock to finally see all the artwork we’d been living with for a long time looking so much better. It was all hanging in rooms where I had picked the colors and fabrics with our interior designer, Suzanne Binswanger.
Everything came together, and it was absolutely incredible to see that. People are always amazed that we use the whole house. We use every room.
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